Rather than massed planting of pine trees, New Zealand’s sheep and beef country needs a balanced approach throughout the sector, Dani Darke writes.

In 2019 I wrote an article about the threat lining up with the converging forces of the changes to the overseas investment rules, One Billion Trees fund, and the Emissions Trading Scheme. These concerns have been borne out, with rural communities suffering a blow from farm conversions.

In 2018 forestry wasn’t competitive with sheep and beef farming. Fast forward to 2020 and sheep and beef farmers are struggling to compete at land sales. In 2018 the carbon price saw NZUs trading at $25, now it has climbed to $33.50. The jump in land prices can be largely attributed to ‘reforms’ to the ETS, which did nothing to limit the amount of carbon dioxide a fossil fuel emitter can offset. Effectively forestry is being subsidised.

In Pahiatua about 19 farms have sold to forestry recently. The farmers left are probably looking at their options, as nobody wants to be the last farm surrounded by trees. Each of those farms represented at least one family. The fire brigade and St John’s Ambulance have lost volunteers and are struggling to get the numbers they need. Pongoroa school has lost a teacher. A vet who used to drive for an hour out of town servicing sheep and beef clients along the way, now drives past wall-to-wall pines.

The roads where forestry is being harvested are causing havoc. Putere school near Wairoa, once a solid sheep and beef farming area, has just a handful of children. It has been a battle for the school to get the gravel outside the school tarsealed, but it has finally been done.

In a bid to protect their workers from fast trucks, a farmer in the area gave staff radios to communicate with the trucks, which led to reports of the radios being used inappropriately by the truck drivers. Highway 52 between Waipukurau and Masterton has been severely damaged, and the council is unenthusiastic about fixing it up.

Unfortunately, some in the forestry sector have labelled farmers as anti-trees. However, most farmers recognise there is a massive opportunity to add more woodlots to our farms, by planting the right tree in the right place.

The discussion about blanket afforestation has not yet focused on the investment needed in infrastructure, an investment that begins to be side-lined when rural communities disappear. The investment has been made possible by local tax and ratepayers over many generations, and is hidden within the farm price. The reality is, with falling farm numbers funding will dry up, and regional infrastructures will erode quickly because of the massive impacts that logging trucks and slash have on local roads and bridges.

The problem with slash from harvest hasn’t been addressed yet, with many of us familiar with the sight of Tolaga Bay beach covered in debris again following the recent floods.

Attracting good staff is harder for these communities. People want a community base; they want a thriving school and a rugby club to be involved with. They want neighbours they can socialise with. Not knowing your neighbour is a reality for many now – farmers may have to find out who they need to talk to in Germany to fix up the boundary fence. This was an urgent need for one farming family who were devastated to find ewes and lambs had got through the boundary had been shot by a culler, rather than being mustered in and returned as farmers usually do. With fences not being maintained, and gates being left to swing in the breeze, it’s a recipe for problems. Morale for these farmers, and their children has been seriously hit.

On the positive, the issue of blanket afforestation has gained mainstream awareness thanks to the likes of 50 Shades Of Green, Beef and Lamb New Zealand, and many other individuals who have spoken up in their communities. It has been incredible to see how through social media, we have stood together in different parts of the country and collectively made a noise loud enough to be heard over all of the other issues facing New Zealand.

It is up to us to keep the issue front and centre as election policies are developed. Our message needs to clearly be:

  1. Fix the ETS to make it work as intended i.e. to reduce the burning of fossil fuels;
  2. Blanket afforestation and carbon farming ruin rural communities. We need to keep building awareness with academics, ecologists, iwi and others.

Unfortunately, some in the forestry sector have labelled farmers as anti-trees. However, most farmers recognise there is a massive opportunity to add more woodlots to our farms, by planting the right tree in the right place. This has happened with vast numbers of natives planted this winter. Exotics also carry a great opportunity for farmers, where they are to be harvested and carbon credits collected. Farmers are not anti-trees, but integration is the future – not whole-farm conversion.

As the Government continues to push towards its climate obligations, we need to get behind He Waka Eke Noa. This is our sector’s opportunity to have a say in how we get recognition for our existing and new trees on our farms, particularly native trees. The alternative is a levy on us at the meat processors, which lumps everyone in the same basket.

Imagine if every sheep and beef farmer used their farm environment plan, identified 10% of their farm that was steeper, a riparian area, or useful as providing shade and shelter, and planted this with the right tree. There’s 8.5 million hectares of sheep and beef land in New Zealand - at 10% that’s 850,000ha. This would quickly chew up the One Billion Trees funding, won’t greatly upset the farm’s red meat output or profitability, nor lose industry critical mass.

Instead of monocultures, our landscapes would look like intensive lowlands, with a decreasing gradient of intensity as we move up into hill country, matched up with bush blocks, woodlots, and riparian zones - all giving and supporting the opportunity for biodiversity and more.

Thriving rural communities are beneficial for all of New Zealand and New Zealanders. The way to achieve this is by creating a mosaic of different land uses, where the end result is greater than the sum of its parts. This would be a great story for our sector, and our products.

We need our meat processors and exporters on board, so they can take that story global and demonstrate NZ is committed to sustainable food and fibre production.

• Dani Darke is a King Country farmer and Country-Wide columnist.